SONG (SUNG) DYNASTY (A.D.960-1279)
Early paper money The Song Dynasty began a half century after the Tang dynasty ended when the first Song leader, Zhao Kuangyin, grabbed power from a seven-year-old ruler in A.D. 960. The Songs ruled an empire rich in silk, jade and porcelain. They printed books and sent trading ships to India and Java. Fertile lands around the Yangtze and Pearl and other rivers fed 50 million people. But ultimately the Song Dynasty was overwhelmed by invasions. It is generally divided into the Northern Song (960-1126) and the Southern Song (1127-1279) dynasties. The division was caused by the forced abandonment of north China in 1127 by the Song court, which could not push back the nomadic invaders. [Source: The Library of Congress]
During the Song dynasty there were significant increases in population, urbanization and commercialization and advancements in technology. With this came increased wealth and the production of a variety of artistic objects and luxury goods. Rulers, nobleman and scholar-bureaucrats all patronized the arts. There was great deal of travel and movement, allowing an exchange and proliferation of products, ideas and styles.
Zhao Kuanggyin (960-976) cemented his power by forcing troublesome generals to retire and replacing military provincial governors with civil functionaries. Other Song rulers included Kuanggyin, a cruel leader who ordered habitual gamblers to have their hands cut off, a measure historians noted that “was very effective for quite some time.” Yue Fei is a famous Song Dynasty general who was betrayed and died tragically
Websites and Resources
Links in this Website: IMPERIAL CHINA factsanddetails.com ; CHINESE ART FROM THE GREAT DYNASTIES factsanddetails.com/china ; CHINESE DYNASTIES Factsanddetails.com/China ; COURT LIFE AND EMPERORS Factsanddetails.com/China ; MANDARINS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; EUNUCHS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; SHANG DYNASTY (2200-1700 B.C.) AND XIA DYNASTY Factsanddetails.com/China ; ZHOU (CHOU) DYNASTY (1100-221 B.C.) Factsanddetails.com/China ; EMPEROR QIN AND THE QIN DYNASTY (221-206 B.C.) Factsanddetails.com/China ; HAN DYNASTY (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) Factsanddetails.com/China ; TANG DYNASTY (A.D. 690-907) Factsanddetails.com/China ; SONG DYNASTY (960-1279) Factsanddetails.com/China ; YUAN (MONGOL) DYNASTY (1215-1368) ; MING DYNASTY (1368-1644) Factsanddetails.com/China ; QING (MANCHU) DYNASTY (1644-1911) Factsanddetails.com/China ; THEMES IN CHINESE HISTORY Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE FIRSTS--GUNPOWDER, MACHINES, FOODS AND CHAIRS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE FIRSTS--PAPER, MONEY, ASTRONOMY, CLOCKS Factsanddetails.com/China ; GREAT WALL OF CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China
Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 2) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; 3) Oriental Style ourorient.com ; 4) Chinese Text Project chinese.dsturgeon.net ; 5) Minnesota State University site mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory ; 6) ChinaVoc.com ChinaVoc.com ; 7) Early Medieval China Journal languages.ufl.edu/EMC ; 8) History of China history-of-china.com ; 9) U.S.C. Education usc.edu/libraries/archives Books: Cambridge History of Ancient China edited by Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy (1999, Cambridge University Press); The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties by Jessica Rawson (British Museum, 1996)
Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) Brooklyn College site academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge chinaknowledge.de ; 5) China History Forum chinahistoryforum.com ; 6) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; 7 ) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia
Zhao Kuangyin, the first Song emporer
Song Dynasty Rule, Military and Commerce
“The founders of the Song dynasty built an effective centralized bureaucracy staffed with civilian scholar-officials. Regional military governors and their supporters were replaced by centrally appointed officials. This system of civilian rule led to a greater concentration of power in the emperor and his palace bureaucracy than had been achieved in the previous dynasties. The northern Song dynasty emphasized "orderly and virtuous governance, achieved largely through efficient bureaucracy staffed by mandarins who passed the rigorous state examinations...the revival of Confucian teaching gave a particularly strong moral flavor to the dynasty."
Song rule featured a bureaucratic ruling class that derived its legitimacy from philosophical orthodoxy and an economy that involved an increasingly active free peasantry interacting with large urban commercial, manufacturing and administrative centers. As was true with the dynasties the Song Dynasty was essentially ruled by an elite bureaucracy chosen through competitive examinations on classic Confucian texts. Some 20,000 mandarins were responsible for governing an empire with more than 100 million people. Progress was hampered somewhat by strong central control. Fearing loss of authority, the bureaucracies reigned in the power of merchants with strict regulations.
The Song dynasty was supported by a powerful army with hundreds of thousands of professional soldiers supported by imperial taxes and a large iron and steel industry. The first lines of Song defenses were fortified garrisons, armed by men with crossbows.The most powerful weapon was a sophisticated crossbow with a trigger device capable of accommodating great tension and shooting arrows that penetrated leather armor. Even weak soldiers with little skill could shoot arrows with great accuracy. Song soldiers used gunpowder in a limited capacity in "fire arrows" and bomblike devises. The Song army was ultimately defeated by the Mongols because the emperors didn't trust their own generals and divided the army which was outmaneuvered and overrun more easily than a more concentrated force.
The Song dynasty is notable for the development of cities not only for administrative purposes but also as centers of trade, industry, and maritime commerce. The landed scholar-officials, sometimes collectively referred to as the gentry, lived in the provincial centers alongside the shopkeepers, artisans, and merchants. A new group of wealthy commoners--the mercantile class-- arose as printing and education spread, private trade grew, and a market economy began to link the coastal provinces and the interior. Landholding and government employment were no longer the only means of gaining wealth and prestige.
The Songs ruled an empire rich in silk, jade and porcelain. They sent trading ships to India and Java and presided over a period of growth in trade and an expansion of the Chinese empire. Trade increased in the Indian Ocean partly as a response to the threat from Islamic intrusions into the area. Even so trade was not a respectable vocation and the emperor seized the property of merchants to create government monopolies.
Song Dynasty Advances
Advances that occurred during the Song dynasty included the first printed books, the first widespread use of paper currency and credit notes, the first school system, the development of gun powder, rapid development of the coal, steel and armaments industries, increased economic activity, and expansion of markets abroad.
Under the Song dynasty iron production in 1078 was double that of England in the early industrial revolution in the late 18th century. Chinese ships had watertight compartments, pivoting sails and compasses. Large sailing ships had six masts, four decks and were capable of carrying a 1000 men.
Chinese engineers developed the spinning jenny and the steam engine, two inventions that were key to England the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Improvements in crop yields through innovations, improvements in techniques and intensification produced what has been described as the world’s first green revolution.
Shan-Yin, a Song princess, had a special bed made that could accommodate 30 men who all made love to her at the same time.
China’s per capita income adjusted for inflation was higher at the end of the Song Dynasty in the 1270s than it was under Mao in the 1950s.
Song Dynasty Population Growth
The Chinese population, long stable at around 50 million people, doubled in 200 years during the Song dynasty with the introduction of fast growing rice, improved tools and double harvests. These innovations also helped China develop a large permanent urban culture. A census taken in 1086 recorded 108 million people, more than four times the number of people in all of Europe.
The great world cities in the year 1000 were Constantinople, Bagdad, Cordoba in Spain, Angkor Wat in Indochina, Tollán in Mexico, and Changngan and Kaifeng in China. In 1020, Kaifeng was home to around a half million people and featured tores that remained open all night, named streets and powerful merchants.
Largest cities in the world in the year 1000 (estimated population): 1) Cordoba, Spain (450,000); 2) Kaifeng, China (400,000); 3) Constantinople (300,000); 4) Angkor, Cambodia (200,000); 5) Kyoto, Japan (175,000); 6) Cairo (135,000); 7) Baghdad (125,000); 8) Neyshabur, Persia (125,000); 9) Al Hasa, Arabia (110,000); 10) Anhilvada, India; 11) Rayy, near modern-day Tehran (100,000); 12) Isfahan, Persia (100,000); 13) Seville, Spain (90,000); 14) Dali, China (90,000); 15) Thanjavur, India (90,000).
Culture and Arts During the Song Dynasty
Culturally, the Song refined many of the developments of the previous centuries. Included in these refinements were not only the Tang ideal of the universal man, who combined the qualities of scholar, poet, painter, and statesman, but also historical writings, painting, calligraphy, and hard-glazed porcelain. Song intellectuals sought answers to all philosophical and political questions in the Confucian Classics. This renewed interest in the Confucian ideals and society of ancient times coincided with the decline of Buddhism, which the Chinese regarded as foreign and offering few practical guidelines for the solution of political and other mundane problems. [Source: The Library of Congress]
The Song Neo-Confucian philosophers, finding a certain purity in the originality of the ancient classical texts, wrote commentaries on them. The most influential of these philosophers was Zhu Xi (1130-1200), whose synthesis of Confucian thought and Buddhist, Taoist, and other ideas became the official imperial ideology from late Song times to the late nineteenth century. As incorporated into the examination system, Zhu Xi's philosophy evolved into a rigid official creed, which stressed the one-sided obligations of obedience and compliance of subject to ruler, child to father, wife to husband, and younger brother to elder brother. The effect was to inhibit the societal development of premodern China, resulting both in many generations of political, social, and spiritual stability and in a slowness of cultural and institutional change up to the nineteenth century. Neo-Confucian doctrines also came to play the dominant role in the intellectual life of Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. [Ibid]
During the Song dynasty Taoism and Taoist art were lavishly supported by the emperors Chen-tsung (998-1022) and Hui-tsung (1101-1125). The zenith of Taoist painting occurred in the 11th century, when 100 artists, chosen from 3,000 candidates, lead by chief painter Wu Tsung-yuan, were commissioned to paint the wall mural Immortal Protectors of the Dynasty in the Three Purities temple at Lonyang. The Northern Song dynasty poet Su Xun and his sons Su Shi and Su Zhe are highly regarded.
Early Spring by Guo Xi
Song Dynasty Painting
Landscape painting matured during the Song Dynasty. Artists created paintings that viewers could gaze on, wander and travel through and dwell in. Artists who painted birds, flowers and animals tried not only to accurately depict the shape and appearance of their subjects, they also aimed to capture their internal emotions, ideas and essential characteristics.
Some scholars say that Chinese painting reached its pinnacle during the Song dynasty under Hui Tsung (1100-1126), an emperor who was much better painter than ruler. He set up and taught at China's first academy of painting and amassed a collection of 6,400 painting by 231 masters. Chinese artists often collected the works of other artists as sources of inspiration.
The artists of many of the great masterpieces of Chinese are unknown. Among the great Song era painters who are known are Zhang Zeduan, Gu Hongzhong, Fan Kuan and Guo Xi.
Guo Xi was a famous landscape painter. He once wrote: "wonderfully lofty are these heavenly mountains, inexhaustible in their mystery. In order to grasp their creations, one must love them utterly and never cease wandering among them, storing impressions one by one in the heart."
Song Dynasty Porcelain
Some of the most beautiful porcelain ever produced was made during the Song dynasty (960-1279), when world-famous monochrome porcelains, including celedon, were produced. Celadon is green porcelain made with a slip and glaze, sometimes with incised and inlaid decorations. It is associated with both China and Korea.
Wonderful crazed or cracked glazed pottery, produced by the shrinking and cracking of the glazes due to rapid cooling, appeared during the Song period. The earliest pieces with this kind of glazing were probably made by accident in the firing process but later was developed into an art form that had a great impact outside of China, influencing the famous tea ceremony ceramics of Japan.
Ching-te Chen in the Chiang-shsi province (present-day Jiangdezhen in Jiangxi Province) became the seat of imperial ceramic making under Emperor Chen Tsung around A.D. 1000. Porcelain from the imperial plant here was regarded as the best and was reserved for imperial use.
Ju ware, a kind of celadon from the Northern Song dynasty that ranges in color from blue to green, is the rarest of all forms of porcelain. Only 65 pieces of it exist and 23 of them are possessed by the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
End of the Song Dynasty
The Song Dynasty ended in 1126 when horsemen from the north called the Jurchen (ancestors to the Manchu) imprisoned the Emperor and captured the Song capital of Bianjing. The Jurchean were the conquered by another group of horsemen, the Mongols.
The Great Wall was supposed to keep horsemen like the Jurchen the Mongols out of China. It was breached partly because the horsemen simply went around it and the Chinese government wasted its military budget on an inefficient and unskilled Chinese fighting force rather than hiring horsemen mercenaries who fought using the same tactics as the Mongols. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]
Song Image Sources: 1)Song Emperor, China Page website; 2) Paper Money, Brooklyn College; 3) Kaifeng, Brooklyn College; 4) Guo Xi painting, University of Washington; 5) Song porcelain, Metropolitan Museum of Art;
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated August 2012